Friday, December 11, 2015

Michael Bublé’s Fifth Holiday Special (NBC-TV, December 10, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

First up was Michael Bublé’s latest holiday special, filmed on the site of Universal Studios (since Universal and NBC are both Comcast-owned companies) with the improbable sight of Bublé being shown on the Universal tour bus belting out a heartwarming, upbeat song about the imminent arrival of Christmas while passing in front of the famous Gothic-house set used as Norman Bates’ residence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. (Nothing says “that Christmas spirit” like a story about a serial killer whose delusion is that he’s his own mom.) I remember last year being amused by the “ghost duet” Bublé did with Bing Crosby on “White Christmas” (Bing’s contribution came from the “Merrie Old English Christmas” special he filmed in the U.K. a few months before his death, from whence came the famous duet on “The Little Drummer Boy” with David Bowie — as I noted in these pages a little while ago, can you think of anyone else who recorded with both Paul Whiteman and David Bowie?), though this time he avoided such shenanigans and alternated between his own contributions, a couple of duets and some quite exciting guest stars. Among the latter were Céline Dion (who seems to have made the cut as much because she and Bublé are both Canadian as anything else), Tori Kelly and the R&B act Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, who I had imagined had a more “cult” reputation than they do. They’ve been big enough to appear on Saturday Night Live, and Jones herself is a formidable soul contralto who didn’t get to do a solo number but did get to be Bublé’s duet partner on “White Christmas,” which wasn’t too shabby.

Tori Kelly, a name pretty much otherwise unknown to me, got to do “This Christmas” (an old Motown song I think was originally written for the Jackson Five — at least I have memories of Michael Jackson singing it in his kid’s voice and singing the hell out of it, though Kelly’s version wasn’t at all bad) and Dion’s solo feature was “O Holy Night” — though I was a bit disappointed she didn’t either do the French version, “Cantique de Noël” (since she’s a bilingual French-Canadian — indeed I have a CD of Dion singing some of her biggest hits in French, obviously with the original backing tracks used and Dion just adding a new vocal), or sing alternate choruses in both languages. In some ways the most interesting segment featured Bublé with his big band’s rhythm section, first singing a cappella (except for one person playing a ukulele) the Alvin and the Chipmunks’ hit “Christmas, Don’t Be Late” (slower than the original, and it’s rather weird to hear these normally-pitched adult male voices crooning lines like “Me, I want a hula hoop,” without being sped up and manipulated the way Ross Bagdasarian, a.k.a. “David Seville,” did on the original record) and then doing low-keyed versions of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Feliz Navidad” (also slower and considerably less annoying than the original by José Feliciano) before Tori Kelly rejoined the proceedings for a duet with Bublé on the original “Jingle Bells.” Without the blasting big band he usually sings with, Bublé achieved a surprisingly intimate effect and seemed more relaxed — much like Frank Sinatra with Red Norvo on their late-1950’s tour recordings playing cut-down versions of the arrangements Nelson Riddle and others had worked on for the big-band backings on Sinatra’s records. (I had earlier been amused by a typical Jeopardy! clue question — they did a Sinatra category in honor of the singer’s 100th birthday tomorrow and the clue was something along the lines of Sinatra’s “puzzling” arranger in the 1950’s — the current champion rang in and said, “Who was Cole Porter?,” who was a songwriter rather than an arranger; of course the correct response would have been, “Who was Nelson Riddle?”) I was surprised by a couple of mild political comments at the beginning of the show (including a remark by Bublé about two people important in his life, including his Venezuelan-born wife, whom Donald Trump wouldn’t allow into the country) but incensed when Bublé and Dion duetted on John Lennon’s beautiful “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” — but left out the “War Is Over” part! 

What’s more, Bublé then went into a treacly, sentimental rap about wanting to dedicate his last song of the evening to all the servicemembers who are overseas fighting for our freedoms (well, if that’s what you want to call it — we lost 4,000-plus Americans in George W. Bush’s stupid war in Iraq that helped create Islamic State — I have a great deal of admiration and heroism for the people in the U.S. military who do their jobs and don’t go crazy and commit atrocities, but very little respect for the missions they’ve been sent on and the “causes” for which they’ve been tapped to fight — not long ago I heard an unctuous Republican Congressmember describe the current U.S. military as “the greatest fighting force the world has ever known,” which makes one wonder just why the greatest fighting force the world has ever known can’t seem to finally and definitively win a war: the last time the U.S. was clearly and unambiguously on the winning side of a war that finally ended was in 1945!) before he went into “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I guess it’s an appropriate song to dedicate to the military because it was written during that last Just War (1944), and I couldn’t help but compare his version to Mary J. Blige’s on the Christmas at Rockefeller Center special last week. Blige’s was a soulful version, considerably altering the melody and going for a quasi-spiritual intensity (and largely achieving it; like the late Donna Summer, Blige is a great singer who can phrase and deliver beautiful, musical performances when her producers don’t crank up drum machines behind her and strait-jacket her into strict “dance music” tempi); Bublé’s was a full middle-of-the-road treatment, a bit on the dull side but respecting the music even though he didn’t create the intensely prayerful, soulful effect Judy Garland, for whom the song was written, gave it in the film Meet Me in St. Louis and the record she made for Decca around the time of the film. But then nobody can touch Judy on this beautiful, haunting song that was written for her! I have mixed feelings about Michael Bublé; he’s not a great singer but he’s a very good one, and he’s welcome if only as assurance that the standards will still live in live performance even when Tony Bennett finally shuffles off this mortal coil.